News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Valley Life

May 25, 2014

Clowning around: Performers have been delivering smiles to faces across Wabash Valley for nearly a quarter of a century

“If by chance some day you’re not feeling well and you should remember some silly thing I’ve said or done and it brings back a smile to your face or a chuckle to your heart, then my purpose as your clown has been fulfilled.” — Red Skelton

TERRE HAUTE — Coulrophobia is a word used by some to describe the excessive fear of clowns. It is reported that not too many people actually suffer from a debilitating phobia of these painted-faced, colorful-costumed, big-shoed, wide-smiled characters, who usually intend to make people laugh. And certainly no one is afraid of “Butterbeans,” “Miss Pipps” or “Pippy.” These two Terre Haute sisters have been clowning around for nearly a quarter of a century, entertaining at kids’ parties, company picnics and festivities of all kinds.

“The kids love us … People are really happy to see us. If you have a regular job, sometimes [the people you come in contact with are] not happy to see you,” said Vivian Marsh, better known as “Miss Pipps” the clown.

“When you go into a party atmosphere where everyone is happy, there’s no other job like that in the world,” Vivian said.

It really isn’t an occupation that people are vying for. You don’t often hear “I want to be a clown when I grow up.” But Vivian said her sister, Sue “Susie” Thomas, also known as “Butterbeans” the clown, convinced her one day some 23 years ago to leave the normal world behind and become one of these characters who represent fun personified. “She convinced me it would be fun and rewarding to do kids’ parties and charitable work … and it has been.”

“It’s making kids smile, laugh and have a good time,” Susie added. “What could be better?”

At that time, in the early 1990s there really weren’t any options in this area for clowns, Susie said. She had gone to a nephew’s party and realized the clown they had brought in was geared more toward the adults. The kids wouldn’t have been able to get the jokes and puns, she said. The only other option in town was Show Biz pizza. “I knew I could do better than what I had just witnessed,” Susie said.

She convinced Vivian to come along on the journey because, “family are dependable.” It’s hard to get others to be dedicated, she said. Over the years, she said she had problems with employees canceling at the last minute or not showing up for parties. While they do have some employees, the majority of her hired help in the clowning business is family.

It’s a fun business the sisters both will tell you. But clowning around is also a very serious business, according to the World Clown Association, which exists to serve the needs of its members, the needs of local affiliate clown alleys and to promote the art of clowning throughout the world. Many people think they can go out and buy a crazy costume, put it on and be funny. But that’s just not the case.

Vivian explains part of that: “You have to have a crazy personality to do it. You have to become that character.”

One of the first things Vivian and Susie did was to attend clown classes at Indiana State University. Since that time they have attended conventions and other educational classes to hone their talents. Experts from all over the world attend clown conventions to teach classes on making animals from balloons, the art of make-up, face-painting, magic tricks and more. These two local clowns have been instructed by clowns from Germany, Switzerland and Japan, to name a few. They take their clowning seriously.

The World Clown Association website echoes that sentiment: “A real clown studies in a very serious way how to be silly. There are classes … on how to write comic skits and how to do funny walks. [There are] intensive workshops on how to add comedy to our clown antics.”

Clowns have been around just about as long as dirt and are found in almost all cultures, according to the website Smithsonian. They have been known as pranksters, jesters, jokers and harlequins. Even American Indians had a clown-like character who added spice and fun to serious dance rituals. The earliest known clown dates back to 2400 B.C. in Egypt. Clowns also appeared in ancient Roman and Greek societies and eventually evolved into the court jesters in the Middle Ages. Joseph Grimaldi has been given credit for inventing the modern-day clown in the early 1800s. In France about that time, Jean-Gaspard Deburau became one of the first professional silent mimes. Clowns became very popular in 1892 because of an Italian Opera called “Pagliacci” that featured a clown. Soon clowns became an integral part of big-top circuses.

Today, clown therapy is very popular. There are numerous hospital clowning programs around the world, including Clini-Clowns in Austria, le Rie Medicine in France, Doctors of Joy in Brazil and Fools for Health in Canada, according to the website Hospital Clowning. The first established Clown Care Unit in the United States was opened in 1987 in New York by Gib Apple Circus. Theodora Foundation also has established hospital clown programs in many countries. including South Africa, Hong Kong and Belorussia. Theodora Foundation is based in Switzerland.

Susie and Vivian have experienced the smiles they put on kids’ faces when they appear in clown attire and say they realize there are no gloomy people around clowns.

There are three traditional types of clowns, Susie explained: the whiteface, the auguste and the character clown. She said she has found over the years that the children prefer the auguste clown, which she portrays as Butterbeans. Susie said she very seldom changes anything about her make-up or clothing, but Vivian varies her clothing and make-up quite frequently. The whiteface clown is really the “classic clown” and is the most well-known and oldest type, according to the World Clown Association. The face is basically painted white with grease paint. The whiteface clown is traditionally the straight clown in skits.

The auguste clown is known for zaniness and is generally cast as the silly clown in skits. The make-up is more flesh-tone based with features outlined, according to the World Clown Association. The character clown is more the hobo or tramp clown, much of what Red Skelton portrayed as “Freddy the Freeloader.” These clowns are known for their tattered clothes, worn-out hat and make-up exaggerating unshaven or dirty faces, exaggerated features and a red nose. This type of clown is known as the most popular.

Vivian and Susie said they love being clowns. “We practically live in clown outfits. But those aren’t the only outfits you’ll see them in. Susie’s business, The Fundazzlers, offers other costumed characters as well as clowns, games, face painting, balloon art, puppetry, fun magic and science shows and coordinating snacks, food and cakes for all ages, especially kids.

Susie said they are seeing second-generation clients now and that the kids will never forget an experience like The Fundazzlers give. “[Kids] love us. They love the attention, no matter what age they are. It gives them self satisfaction when you recognize them and single them out. After all, ‘A person is a person, no matter how small,’ Susie said, quoting the famous Dr. Seuss.

“I’ll probably be doing this until I die,” she said.

Famous clowns

• Patch Adams

• Charlie Chaplin as the “Little Tramp”

• Bozo the Clown

• Ronald McDonald

• Krusty the Clown from “The Simpsons”

• Emmett Kelly’s Depression-era tramp clown”Weary Willie”

• Red Skelton’s Clem Kadiddlehopper

• Clarabell the Clown from the “The Howdy Doody Show”

Be dazzled

• The Fundazzlers offer all sorts of character themed parties as well as giggle grams. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Contact Sue for more information at 812-234-5795.

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    March 12, 2010